Methodist Church proposal rejected by Historic Preservation Board

August 16, 2019
By Marcy Shortuse

The discussion of several topics at the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board on Wednesday, Aug. 14 was quiet and quick until the last two items … and it was apparently those items that had the seats unusually full for an August meeting in Boca Grande.
The topic that had the most seats filled was the proposed alterations at the Lighthouse United Methodist Church of Boca Grande. They have asked the board to give them permission to move the parsonage – the small house just east of the main church building facing 3rd Street – back four feet from its present location; to elevate the finished floor of the office building by 2.5 feet; restore the office building’s existing enclosed porch along 3rd Street to its original form; to remodel the interior of the existing office; and to construct a 32-square-foot addition for the “pastor’s office”  and a 1,066-square-foot “connector wing” to connect the detached office building to the sanctuary and general activities building.
The project was presented by Lee County Attorney Anthony Rodriguez, who said that staff was recommending approval to the board initially, but he found out just prior to the meeting that making that many changes to the old parsonage would take away its contributing status on the National Historic Registry. The contributing status of the main church building had been taken away more than 10 years ago when it was remodeled, and having the status of both buildings changed to “noncontributing” could take the property off the National Historic Register.
Board Member Paul Eddy asked Rodriguez how this would change the percentage of historic buildings there were in our historic district, to which Rodriguez replied that while the property itself would be considered historical, the buildings would not, and that would possibly affect a FEMA outcome if a storm came and damaged or destroyed the building.
The applicant’s architect, Tim Krebs, addressed the board and said it seemed odd to him that their proposal to recreate the original porch would create a situation where the building faced losing its historical status. Rodriguez said the problem had more to do with the connector being placed between the contributing parsonage and the noncontributing church buildings. Krebs countered with the fact that the connector could be removed at any time, if need be.
“The fact that the building could be taken off the register because of this is new to me,” Krebs said. “It would be something to study, but I would submit to anyone at the National Register that this building could be removed as specified by the guidelines issued by the Department of the Interior.”
Board Chairman Guerrino Savio said, “All buildings can be removed … I don’t understand the condition.”
Island resident and Methodist churchgoer Susan Hanafee then addressed the board with a presentation.
“My first observation is that this plan effectively removes another historic structure from our community,” she said. “When the work is done, there will be little left of the 1913 parsonage that has been home to more than 60 pastors and their families and where island children – including little Betsy Joiner – attended Sunday School and kindergarten on the front porch.
“Another piece of old Boca Grande will be unrecognizable; its 100-year-plus history swallowed up in a nondescript building wing of the main church.”
Hanafee also mentioned that there were several more available and underused rooms in the new church additions already in place that could be used for other purposes, and that a vote taken in March of 2018 by church members showed that a considerable number of people were not in favor of the additions and renovations.
“Of the 246 eligible to vote, only 41 people or 17 percent showed up to vote for it. 15 voted against,” she said. “Perhaps this low voter turnout indicated a lack of enthusiasm for the project among an aging and transient congregation – many of whom have allegiance to northern churches or who simply don’t want to rock the boat or upset friends who support the project.”
She also mentioned another interesting fact.
“You might be surprised to learn that the Lighthouse Church does not own its buildings in Boca Grande even though it pays for them. There are no local owners of these properties. The title to these buildings is held in trust by the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, which is headquartered in Lakeland, Florida – 90 miles from Boca Grande.
“You should also know that if the local church violates the Methodist Book of Discipline, the Conference has the right to remove the “Methodist flame” and dispose of these historic structures in whatever manner it deems fit.”
Several other speakers from the public addressed the board, including Attorney Steve Hartsell (a representative of the Gilchrist Neighbor Association and Mary Howell) who spoke about the need for more parking if this addition and renovation took place; Mary O’Bannon (who also spoke about parking); Attorney Mark Abelina, who represented  Bill Regnery, a neighbor across from the parsonage; Lynn Seibert, who opposed the project; church member Ross Witschonke, who approves of the project; and Micky Hartig, a historical registry expert who helped Boca Grande obtain its historic district status. Hartig spoke passionately about the fact that she felt the project should be looked at more carefully, lest the entire property lose its historic status in all forms.
Eddy said he was concerned about that as well.
“I think the amount of objections we’ve heard here today [is] pretty astounding and quite vocal,” he said. “There’s a lot to consider here. The Boca Grande Historic District is very important to us, because if we have to rebuild in the event of a catastrophe – to FEMA standards – it will be very, very expensive. We would lose our charming character that we all love. “There’s a reason that a little house like mine is worth such an insane amount of money, my house is worth so much. You go off island to a place like Englewood or Rotonda and you can get three times the house for one eighth of the price. Part of the reason for that is the Gasparilla Island Act, and we appreciate that Act. I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for their contributions today.”
In the end there was a 4-2 vote against the proposal. Board Members Dana Robinette, Jerry Edgerton, Savio, and Eddy said they were opposed to the project as it was presented to the board. Board Members Becky Paterson and Bill Caldwell were for it.
The last item of business was brought up by Paterson, who was concerned about the code enforcement complaints that have plagued the village as of late. She said it was important for the board to look at the process where “one anonymous individual may file a complaint, and suddenly the County is utilizing resources to investigate.”
“There’s got to be something we can do as a board to avoid this,” she said. “If all of these changes were actually made, the pink pump would be gone. Seating would be gone. Things that are the nature of our community would be changed.”
Eddy agreed, and referred to the complainants as “whack jobs.”
Paterson has been tasked with composing a letter to the County to see if anything could be done by the board. They then adjourned.
The next meeting will be held on September 11.